Published on 21 Mar 2024

Impactful 4th James Best Distinguished Lecture by Professor Soumya Swaminathan

The consequences of climate change on our health and society are indisputable and immensely far-reaching.

This was underscored in the 4th James Best Distinguished Lecture delivered last night by renowned scientist and international public health champion Professor Soumya Swaminathan. An audience of more than 300 gathered at the Ong Tiong Tat and Irene Tan Liang Kheng Auditorium, listened raptly to her lecture titled, ‘Climate Change, Public Health, and Equity’.

The James Best Distinguished Lecture series was launched in 2022 as part of the School’s 10th Anniversary Distinguished Visitor Programme. The programme runs for five years and is made possible by a generous $500,000 donation by a local donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

The event commenced with an opening address by LKCMedicine Dean Distinguished University Professor Joseph Sung, who is also NTU Senior Vice-President (Health & Life Sciences), During his address, he quipped that the “James Best Distinguished Lecture is always the best lecture.”

Prof Sung added that Prof Swaminathan’s lecture on the intricate relationship between climate change and human health is timely and demands urgent attention and concerted action at both local and global levels, in Singapore as well. 

“A recent systematic review study examining climate variability and air quality with population health in Singapore has also found that several effects of climate change such as absolute humidity, rainfall, nitrogen dioxide and ozone were positively associated with adverse health. At a national level, these findings are concerning for Singapore and what it means for our local health systems,” he said.

Before moving on to the highlight of the evening, former Dean of LKCMedicine Professor James Best whom the lecture series is named after, delivered the citation for Prof Swaminathan. Her storied career saw her progress from being a paediatrician in India to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first Chief Scientist and now Chairperson of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation.

“[Prof Swaminathan] has played a pivotal role in shaping international health policies and strategies, particularly in the fight against infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, and COVID-19. During the pandemic she played a key role in coordinating scientific efforts at the WHO…with a focus on equitable vaccine distribution to lower middle-income countries,” shared Prof Best, who is now a visiting professor at LKCMedicine.

Upon taking the stage to begin her lecture, Prof Swaminathan did not shy away from painting a realistic picture of the situation we are collectively grappling with. “What is going to really impact our health today is not what is happening in hospitals and health centres, but really what is happening upstream and the risk factors for our health that we pay too little attention to. Climate change is one of these [factors] and it is an issue that threatens the very future of our humanity, even though we do not think of it that way.”

To reiterate this point, she provided an overview of the extreme weather and climate events that occurred around the world in 2023 alone, and how global players such as the World Economic Forum and the Conference of Parties (COP) 28 have finally begun to acknowledge the various direct and indirect risks that lie ahead with regards to climate change and health.

Although climate change has emerged at the forefront of the global discourse, this is still insufficient as there is very limited research being done on how heat and air pollution affects the human body. Prof Swaminathan highlighted a few areas that require immediate attention, ranging from better recording of deaths ascribed to heat, to understanding how continuous exposure to heat and humidity affects the cardiovascular system, to reframing our perspective of air pollution and seeing it as equally or more harmful as infectious diseases.

Apart from detailing the various health- and food-related effects of climate change, Prof Swaminathan also pointed out that we cannot discuss climate change without mentioning economic and gender inequality.

“Just like the pandemic, we will see a worsening or an exacerbation of social determinants of inequality. What we saw during COVID-19 is that it did not create these inequalities, only made them obvious. In every society, we could see who was the most vulnerable, the marginalised, the ones with the least amount of resources and resilience. It happened in every country. This is what climate change is also doing.”

While a large part of a lecture showcased the bleak reality of climate change and disasters, Prof Swaminathan reassured the audience that steps can be taken to both mitigate and adapt to these risks. Drawing from her knowledge and research, she cited heat action plans implemented in Rajasthan and Ahmedabad, the valuable work carried out by indigenous communities in Odisha to protect cultural biodiversity as well as alternative food sources such as millet.

As she concluded her lecture, Prof Swaminathan reminded all the healthcare professionals present that healthcare systems are in fact a contributor to climate change. “This is not because of the infrastructure and electricity used, but also because of supply chains, the number of plastics and disposable items we use and where they are coming from. Maybe health systems should start calculating our carbon footprint. As medical professionals, we must be aware and think about how we can reduce our carbon emissions and not be a contributor,” she urged.

Following the information-rich and insightful lecture, the audience participated enthusiastically in the question-and-answer session that was chaired by LKCMedicine Associate Professor Jo-Anne Manski-Nankervis, who is Co-Director of Family Medicine and Primary Care Unit and Primary Care Research Network.

Responding to the many questions asked, Prof Swaminathan further examined the need for women to occupy leadership positions to influence climate action and policy, the role of individuals and collective contributions, the importance of translating research into policy and the effectiveness of existing global governing structures. 

With much to ruminate over, LKCMedicine faculty, staff, students and guests had the opportunity to continue the dialogue with Prof Swaminathan at a Fireside Chat that took place immediately after the James Best Distinguished Lecture. 

Hosted by LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for External Relations Associate Professor Yusuf Ali at the School’s medical library, the session kicked off with Prof Swaminathan sharing personal anecdotes about her childhood and the influence of her late father who was an established economist. She also humorously recounted how Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, offered her the position of Chief Scientist over an unexpected phone call.

This candid exchange of experience and ideas signalled a fruitful evening and the end of another successful and well-attended James Best Distinguished Lecture. Through this platform, LKCMedicine aims to bringing together thought leaders and industry experts to advance the discourse in medicine, medical education, and research.